Over the last 24 hours, the internet has been cheering Jane Fonda.
Fonda and Gloria Steinem, a towering pair of crusading feminists, appeared together on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes to discuss the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, representing the Women’s Media Center, which they co-founded with poet Robin Morgan in 2005. Both had spoken out already about the horrific accusations made against the Hollywood mogul and how, sadly, they are merely exemplary of a systemic industry problem.
But it’s when the duo steered the conversation toward racial optics that people took notice, as they theorized on why it was the Weinstein investigations broke the proverbial levee, leading to the flood of accusations against power players across almost every industry: It was almost exclusively famous white women making the accusations.
“It feels like something has shifted,” Fonda said on the broadcast. “It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them. This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color and it doesn’t get out quite the same.”
Steinem spoke about the power in numbers, and her optimism that this will be “a tipping point” in identifying racist and sexist bias. “If you steal money, you probably get arrested and convicted, because everybody says stealing is wrong,” Steinem said. “But if you do something that is very sexist or racist, because there still is a critical mass of bias in this country, it takes more cumulative instances for it to be recognized.”
It’s something that most of the coverage of the Weinstein scandal has been dancing around.
While not discounting or dismissing the severity of the accusations, there is inherent privilege involved in a Hollywood scandal like this, which shook the rafters it did because of the fame of some of the first women who came forward: Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie. (And, yes, there is surely irony in the fact that it required two famous white women to bring this up.)
Of the more than 60 women who have come forward against Weinstein, the most recognizable non-white accuser is Lupita Nyong’o, who wrote a piece for The New York Times detailing her experience with the producer. It’s certainly noteworthy that Nyong’o is the only accuser whose account Weinstein has publicly and pointedly refuted. The optics of that are staggering. And telling.
The public outcry, the incessant media coverage, the demand for industry reform, and the reverberating investigations in other industries is, as Steinem said, certainly at a tipping point.
But the same attention has never been paid to women in other industries when they’ve come forward—women who certainly have more to lose than a movie star—and certainly has never been paid to victims who are women of color. Again, as Fonda said, “this has been going on a long time” with them, and even in public cases that failed to galvanize in the same way as the Weinstein controversy, such as the R. Kelly scandal.
Among the people applauding Fonda for bringing this point to the conversation was director and producer Ava Duvernay, who tweeted, “Jane Fonda, ladies and gentlemen,” then hashtagging, “#rkellyvictimsstillwaiting.” Daily Beast contributor Roland S. Martin tweeted, “Damn. Jane Fonda bringing the wood! And she’s 100 percent right. When white women complain, America listens. Black women? Nope.”
Similar praise and echoing of Fonda’s point has been trickling in all over social media:
Fonda has proven to be an intriguing example of celebrities being forced to grapple publicly and in real time with what they knew about their industry, and how to reckon with any complicity they had in it, or power to change it. (Take in contrast, say, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who have fumbled through a self-serving exoneration tour.)
She has said that she first heard about Weinstein’s behavior a year ago, telling CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that she is “ashamed that I didn’t say anything right then.” Asked why she didn’t, she said, “I was not that bold,” further explaining that it was Rosanna Arquette who had told Fonda about her experience with Weinstein, but Fonda “didn’t feel it was my place” to go public with it.
It’s a tough position to have been in, one that doesn’t absolve her lack of inaction to the same degree that it doesn’t necessarily condemn it. But there is undeniable value in Fonda bringing attention to the under-told stories of the women of color who have faced similar harassment.
Fonda, of course, is not the first person to notice the racial discrepancy when it comes to the focus on the Weinstein victims. She’s merely the most visible person to bring it to the light.
On Oct. 13, for example, after actress Rose McGowan’s Twitter account was briefly suspended following a series of tweets she made about sexual assault in light of the Weinstein case, a #WomenBoycottTwitter movement surfaced encouraging women and supporters to remain off the social media site for 24 hours in protest of the silencing of women’s voices and in support of women who are harassed on the platform.
But as Duvernay tweeted at the time, “Calling white women allies to recognize conflict of #WomenBoycottTwitter for women of color who haven’t received support on similar issues.”
Reporter Eugene Scott wrote a piece about that point for The Washington Post, signaling how some saw the boycott rallying cry “as a double standard, in which women of color are expected to support the mistreatment of famous, wealthy and white women, but the same levels of support aren’t reciprocated.”
The backlash to the movement, he wrote, was aimed “at those who remain silent when women of color speak about the same issues, or on police brutality, the pay gap and a lack of diversity in the feminist movement.”
Then there’s the fact that got lost amid the widespread usage of the #MeToo social media movement, that went viral last week, with women publicly sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault. Many outlets credited actress Alyssa Milano for creating the campaign and originating the hashtag, but the “Me Too” campaign was actually started a black woman named Tarana Burke 10 years ago—a contribution from a woman of color that, as too often happens, was erased.
That said, Burke told Ebony magazine that thought it was powerful to see the movement spreading in such a way last week. “I salute it and the women who have disclosed but the power of using ‘me too’ has always been in the fact that it can be a conversation starter or the whole conversation—but it was us talking to us,” she said.
There is obviously a much larger and more nuanced conversation to be had about race and sexual assault that has been largely ignored in the coverage of the Weinstein scandal. We wouldn’t pretend to be in the position to dive into that conversation here, but perhaps what Fonda’s statement has done is bring to the forefront the necessity to have it. And, when there might be a tendency to wedge causes in a larger movement, begin the necessary and overdue process of acknowledging, legitimizing, and uniting them all.